Nathan Sayre

Weatherhead Resident Scholar


Ranching and the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge: Natures, States and Capitals in the Urbanizing Southwest

In the polarized controversy surrounding public lands ranching in the West, one fact has been overlooked by scholars and journalists alike, maintains Nathan Sayre. "The worst ecological damage to rangelands occurred during the cattle boom of the late nineteenth century, while public outcry against grazing has emerged only in the last twenty-five years."

While ecologists have studied the consequences of cattle grazing, government agencies have reported on present conditions and efforts to improve the range. Environmentalists have called for an end to all public lands grazing. All of these perspectives treat grazing as an issue involving only two parties: the ranchers and the government. In his dissertation, The Urbanization of Ranching, Sayre argues that the new demands for public land use by recently-arrived urban Western residents , as well as the effect these new migrants have on the regional economy, are not being taken into account by any of these perspectives.

"Resolving the environmental problem of cattle grazing in the West requires that it be understood historically, culturally, and economically as well as ecologically. Analysis of the social forces responsible for rangeland destruction in the late nineteenth century reveals a complex dynamic of natures, states, and capitals. Seen in the light of this history, the present controversy cannot be understood apart from the growing urbanization of the West," stated Sayre.

The transformation of the Buenos Aires Ranch in southwest Arizona into the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge-established in 1985 to reintroduce the endangered masked bobwhite quail and to restore a desert grassland to its "original" condition-offered Sayre a prime example of that complex dynamic created by the contrasting value systems held by ranching, government conservation, and environmental tourism/recreation that underpin much of the ranching controversy.

Sayre conducted much of his dissertation fieldwork while volunteering as the caretaker of an environmental education facility on the refuge in 1996 and 1997. "When I first got into it," Sayre recalls, "I had accepted the conventional media line-the Fish and Wildlife Service (who bought the ranch to establish the refuge) was the virtuous party, while the ranchers were trying to sabotage their efforts. Eventually I realized the quail was really a symbol serving as a pretext for other unacknowledged goals: satisfying the demands of Tucson's exploding population of retirees for weekend recreation in nature-stressing public use such as birding, wildlife viewing, and photography." This shadow motivation became more apparent as efforts to reintroduce the quail proved unsuccessful.

"Living on the refuge triggered a series of revelations and connections about the larger picture," recalls Sayre. These evolved into a scrutiny of another aspect of the range controversy that he calls "the urbanization of ranching," a term that "captures the processes by which ranch lands, previously valued according to their capacity to produce cattle, have come to be valued according to their potential as residential real estate."

The biggest surprise and pleasure during his tenure at SAR, said Sayre, was connecting with the Quivira Coalition, a New Mexican environmental group seeking solutions to the rangeland conflict. "Quivira encourages an emphasis on the actual health of land rather than an insistence on the return to its 'natural' state-a condition that cannot be determined in practical terms, but is an abstract idea lending itself to a moralistic stance," Sayre explained. "This approach offers a promising alternative to this controversy's impasse, keeping the debate focused on the present needs of the land, rather than polarizing into a dogmatic and shrill debate between environmentalists and ranchers.

"My goal," stated Sayre, "is to illuminate the social origins of environmental problems more generally."

Affiliation at time of award:
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago

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